Jukebox-musical bios are usually anchored in the life and work of a superstar, readily recognizable by a single name: Judy, Janis, Piaf. Off Broadway’s latest offering in the genre, “Forever Dusty,” may raise the unfortunate question to some of “Dusty who?” The answer is Dusty Springfield, but the reason why we’d want to see a musical about her remains unresolved in a perfunctory staging peppered with cliches.
A British pop singer who achieved fame in the late ’60s with songs like “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” “Son of a Preacher Man” and Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love,” Springfield was one of the most popular U.K. female vocalists of her time, noted not only for her voice but for her peroxide-blonde beehive and excessive eye makeup. “Forever Dusty” takes her from a shy teen singing backup with the cool girls at the convent to stardom, then on to oblivion. Accompanied by a slew of Springfield songs, natch.
The show comes from director Randal Myler, who seems to specialize in this sort of dead-pop-singer tribute (with past shows centering on Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas, Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams). The format here is simple: An actress impersonates the star, while two women and two men sing backup, play all the other roles, and sometimes move the furniture.
The success of such ventures rides on the strength of the central performer. Thesp Kirsten Holly Smith (also the co-author with Jonathan Vankin), who performed an earlier version of the show in Los Angeles in 2008, is clearly dedicated to the material. Her Dusty, though, is far from compelling; the most exciting flashes of talent in the show come not from her, but from one of the backup singers.
Christina Sajous (“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” “American Idiot”) first emerges singing “Tell Him,” and later takes on the extended role of Claire, a jazz reporter who becomes Dusty’s lover. She, at least, has the chops to make things watchable during her solos and scenes. The book and staging are basic at best, and the wall-sized projections are sometimes startling in the New World Stages’ small space. The four-piece band, at least, keeps the beat going through 20-odd songs.